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Return to office and the Delta Variant: How do you manage it?

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the office, the Delta Variant popped up. Changing COVID regulations have tossed businesses back and forth, and this is another toss. Here’s how your business should approach this change.

return to office Delta Variant

It’s a tough time. To help you, we have six tips for the frazzled HR professional who’s trying to ensure a smooth return to office during the Delta crisis.

Return to office and Delta: 6 tips

1. Pay attention to state laws

The CDC issued guidance that just about everyone – vaccinated or not – should wear a mask when inside where social distancing isn’t possible. But, the CDC’s guidelines are not laws. Your state and local governments decide what the binding rules are for this.

Texas, for instance, has no statewide mask mandate and prohibits local governments from implementing a mask mandate. However, several counties have created mask mandates and are battling against the governor. How do you win in a situation like this?

You can always require more safety measures than the government requires, so you will not be in the wrong to require a mask for your employees and customers in the workplace. So, even if you’re in a state that does not have a mask mandate, you can make one for your employees.

Some states do have mask mandates, such as Oregon’s, which went into effect on Aug. 13. If your business operates across multiple states, you’ll need to pay attention to all state laws to make sure you comply with the mandates in each jurisdiction. This may mean employees in different sites face different rules when returning to office.

2. Consider vaccine mandates

Federal law allows you to require your employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 (as long as you have exceptions for medical and religious reasons). As long as this doesn’t violate state law, you can create a vaccine mandate to help protect your employees.

Read more: Vaccine policies in the workplace

However, keep in mind that you may end up with a disparate impact claim, as vaccination rates are not consistent across racial groups. Black people, for instance, are far less likely to be vaccinated than their White counterparts.

If you’re having trouble recruiting or retaining employees right now (which many businesses are), limiting your applicant pool to fully vaccinated candidates may impede your ability to hire. It’s worth thinking about how your policies impact your business.

In the return to office during Delta, you can provide incentives for employees to vaccinate rather than punishing those who don’t. The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) has said that you can offer a reward as long as it is “noncoercive.” So, yes, you can offer a $500 reward to employees who receive a vaccine against COVID-19.

3. Extend working from home

Rather than implementing mask rules, mandating vaccines, or requiring people to test for COVID regularly, you should extend working from home if possible instead of asking employees to returning to office during Delta. Indeed, not all employees can (or should) work from home, but those who can should continue to do so.

This may be the easiest way to reduce the risk for your employees – even vaccinated employees. People with health concerns are the ones that remain at the highest risk from COVID-19.

If an employee requests to work from home, and there is any way to make that happen, you should strongly consider allowing the employee to do so.

4. Prepare for school shutdowns

Unlike last school year, most schools are open for in-person schooling. This is important for your employees, as they rely on schools not only for education but for babysitting. Last school year, children who were doing online school required a parent at home to monitor and help – which created a difficult situation for many working parents.

However, the Delta Variant seems to spread quickly – more than previous COVID incarnations – which means that just because schools are open today, they may not be tomorrow. That’s doubly so because vaccines for younger children are not yet available, making them more vulnerable to infection. Most likely, you will see individual schools or classes put into quarantine to stop a local outbreak rather than an entire state closing its doors.

If you plan for this, it won’t be a shock when your employees call in because their kids are quarantined and have no childcare. Don’t punish or terminate employees who are stuck in this situation – it should not count as a performance issue if the schools shut down.

Talk with your employees now about plans for dealing with school shutdowns. If you make a plan today, the impact will be less than if you wait until the school boards make a decision.

5. Prepare for angry employees

No matter what decision you make as a business owner, you will not have 100% happy employees. If you mandate vaccines, some employees will quit, or you will have to fire them for not being vaccinated. Some employees may quit if you don’t require vaccines because they don’t feel safe at work.

If you mandate masks for everyone, you may get a revolt from some employees who feel that this is an overreaction. If you don’t mandate masks, you may find other employees complaining that you aren’t doing your best to create a healthy workplace. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

You need to take health and local sentiments into consideration. It’s a balancing act, and what is best for your business may not be best for the business across the street. Who is your clientele? A nursing home should have different requirements than a fast-food restaurant down the road.

You will need to explain your decision to your employees. Consult with a local employment attorney before announcing your policy.

6. Require COVID testing

You can require mandatory COVID-19 tests regularly. Some businesses want unvaccinated employees to pay for these tests as a punishment for not receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, but this is not a good idea. First of all, free COVID tests are available in all states. Second, if free tests aren’t available in your area, you should pay for them. Employment attorney Jon Hyman explains:

“EEOC guidance strongly suggests that the ADA requires employers to cover the costs of COVID-19 testing. The EEOC’s Enforcement Guidance on Disability-Related Inquiries and Medical Examinations of Employees Under the ADA provides that an employer must pay for all medical exam related costs when an employer requires the examination because the employer reasonably believes the employee poses a ‘direct threat.’”

The only way out of this

Everyone is tired of COVID, and the Delta Variant doesn’t help. But, we’ve either got to get sick or get vaccinated to get done with this. The Delta Variant spreads faster than the original virus, and even vaccinated people can still (occasionally) get sick. However, if you are vaccinated, you’re much more likely to have a mild case.

Whether you decide to mandate vaccines or require masks, encourage your employees to receive the vaccine. The CDC just approved a third dose for people who are immunocompromised. Let your employees know about this as well.

Let’s all work together so that we can end the pandemic and return to the office – and get back to normal life.

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